Love or hate them, custom Android interfaces are here to stay for the foreseeable future. They serve a general purpose and, according to their creators, usually make the Android experience more rich and presentable – even more fluid in some cases. They're prepared to argue to the grave that they add polish and usability to Android. In the end, they are really for differentiation and brand recognition.
In Android 4.0, however, Google flexed their design muscles (powered by none other than Matias Duarte) and showed the world a cleaner, more polished version of Android. Nearly all of the rough edges were smoothed away. Solid blacks, neon accents, and a more unified look from start to finish. Don't get me wrong, stock Android 4.0 isn't perfect; it has it's fair share of discrepancies, like the use and misuse of the menu button. But, design-wise, Ice Cream Sandwich is beautiful, coherent and a far cry from Android versions before it.
As Google aimed to simplify, it seemed as of manufacturers were attempting to cram as much junk and "features" into their custom interfaces as possible. HTC's Sense UI, for instance, turned from a nice, quaint skin – and just that, a skin – to a full-blown, bloated, laggy, customized-from-top-to-bottom version of Android. All of the Sense versions that existed on Android 2.3 shared almost no interface elements with the stock Gingerbread launcher. TouchWiz UI, made by Samsung, was hardly any better.
Atop Android 4.0, both skins have seemingly changed for the better. HTC (finally) listened to the cries and complaints of users, reviewers and market experts. In Sense 4, they completely reworked the interface, making it lightweight and fluid. While it maintains the general look of Sense, it is no longer overbearing and in-your-face.
And, as we learned yesterday at the Samsung Mobile Unpacked event, Samsung has taken cues from nature to make TouchWiz Nature UX more frothy. That said, I reserve my final opinion on this particular version of TouchWiz, until I get some hands-on time with it. From Aaron's videos, it hardly looked any better than versions in the past.
Despite purists' (myself most certainly included) hopes of more Android devices shipping with purely stock software in light of a prettier, more fluid Android, it isn't likely to happen. Laptop Mag had a chance to interview HTC's AVP of Sense, Drew Bamford. He explained the core reason HTC continues to use Sense UI:
"Fundamentally, I would say what HTC is trying to do is to create a unique, branded HTC experience on a phone, because our goal is that you walk into a store, whether it’s a carrier store or an independent retailer, and you say ‘I want an HTC.’ You don’t say, ‘I want an Android phone, which one should I get?’ We’re trying to create that continuity of experience and that bridge of an identifiable HTC experience across our products, whether it’s a phone or some other product. If we just adopt ICS as it is, we can’t get that advantage, and it just doesn’t work for us as a business to do that."
Laptop Mag Editor-in-Chief, Mark Spoonauer, continued to ask Bamford more about Sense UI, questions we all have been wondering for a while. "How else do you think that HTC improves on the stock Ice Cream Sandwich experience?," asks Spoonauer. To that, Bamford replies that they add a strong personalization factor with their widgets, lock screen customization and different skins. Bamford also notes ImageSense brings a lot of functionality to the camera software. Both of those are rather hard to argue. But Spoonauer goes on to ask Bamford why HTC continues to use their own browser, mail client and dialer. Bamford says:
"We think we have the industry-leading mail client, especially on Android. Not only because we have this great new thread view on Sense 4, but actually for several releases we’ve had the best Exchange support.
Also, our browser for Sense 4 has some cool features like the ability to add items to a list to read later
In the very basic scenarios, like the phone, the fact that we have smart dial on the phone – the ability to access your contacts through the dialer—we’ve had that since Sense 1.0, and I think it’s a fantastic. It’s surprising it gets so little coverage in the press."
The interview, which is a rather lengthy one, goes on and Spoonauer asks Bamford several different, probing questions. In the end, Bamford's conclusion of Android 4.0 is that it is "just not good enough", but he notes that Sense 4 is not an "intentional rebuttal of the Ice Cream Sandwich design".
Bamford's quote about their custom apps (email, browser, dialer, etc.), in particular, is the one that gets under my skin. This is one of the bigger issues I have with custom interfaces. Make the interface look the way you want, throw in whatever widgets you feel like and feel it to the brim with poor adaptations of native features (compare stock Android Recent Apps with Sense 4's version). But leave browsers and apps to Google! (Honestly, manufacturers are professionals at killing off some of Android's greatest features by replacing them with their "own" features.)
I will be the first to admit that Sense and other custom interfaces have unique features, and there's no denying they're needed just as much as stock Android. There is a great divide around them, but there are just as many people (if not more) who love custom interfaces as there are those who hate them. They are often what keep customers coming back to a particular manufacturer. And as spec sheets become more and more irrelevant, that will only become more true.
Bamford claiming stock Android is "just not good enough", however, is comical, at best. If he had said that prior to Ice Cream Sandwich, I might be inclined to agree. But I used stock Android 4.0 on the Galaxy Nexus for four months and, deep down, don't want to use any other version of Android (save for future versions, of course). Ice Cream Sandwich solidified my purist stance, and I'm certainly not alone on that. I've only used Sense 4 in passing a couple times now, and I already know that I prefer stock Android over Sense any day. Hands down. No contest.
Still, I will be picking up an HTC One X this Sunday. From the bottom of my heart, though, I feel the One X would be a much better device with stock Android on it. (That's why I hope HTC makes the next Nexus.) I feel the same about the Galaxy Note, Galaxy S III and so on and so forth. But it would also be very boring if every Android phone came with the same exact interface, no?
I'm interested in how you take this, readers. Is stock Android 4.0 "good enough"? Or does it need custom interfaces such as Sense 4 and TouchWiz Nature UX to make it "good enough"? Which do you prefer?